Mohammad Zia ul-Haq

Mohammad Zia ul-Haq (1924-1988), an army officer, was president of Pakistan from 1978 until his death in an air crash that was a suspected assassination. He sustained a military government while strengthening Islamic institutions and practices.

Mohammad Zia ul-Hag was born into a middle-class family on August 12, 1924, at Jullunder in East Pubjab, India. After completing his early education at home, he enrolled at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, India. Choosing a career in the British army, he joined the Royal Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun and then served with British troops in Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia during the latter part of World War II.

After the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947, Zia joined the Pakistani army. In 1955 he graduated from the Command Staff College in Quetta, where he later served as an instructor. He attended two military schools in the United States, first at Fort Knox, KY, in 1959, and then the U.S. Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, KS, in 1963. Zia was on active duty in Kashmir during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and after it he was promoted to colonel. In 1969 he was made a brigadier, and for two years he was adviser to the Royal Jordanian Army in their conflict with Palestinian guerrillas.

Leader of Coup

Under the government of Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, Zia advanced rapidly within the army ranks. In 1975 he was promoted to lieutenant-general and in 1976 was appointed as army chief of staff, chosen over several more senior officers. Because the military had been so prominent in Pakistan's politics, Bhutto apparently wanted a less qualified officer with little political ambition as chief of staff. But Bhutto underestimated Zia. Accusations by opposition leaders that the prime minister's party had manipulated the results of the March 1977 parliamentary elections led to widespread public demonstrations and violence. The military, headed by Zia, stepped in on July 5, 1977, to impose martial law and deposed Bhutto in a bloodless coup.

Zia took office as chief martial law administrator and said his sole purpose was to hold "free and fair" elections as early as possible. Instead, he suspended the 1973 constitution, dissolved the National Assembly, and banned political activity. Declaring himself president in 1978, Zia abandoned his plan for elections for fear that Bhutto would return to power and seek revenge. Zia instead began a purge of politicians associated with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto was implicated in a case concerning the assassination of a political opponent's father, and in April 1979, despite international protests, Zia had him executed.

Islamic Policies

Bhutto's execution made Zia unpopular, the economy was in trouble, and in November 1979 Islamic extremists burned the American embassy in Islamabad. Zia's days seemed numbered, but on Christmas Eve 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the United States reversed its long opposition to Pakistan and began aiding Zia's regime to help it fend off Soviet agression.

Zia continued to suppress political activity, saying the country was not ready to return to democracy. He embarked on a program of strengthening Pakistan's economy and reforming social, economic, and political institutions in accordance with Islamic precepts. His government encouraged foreign and domestic investment that had been frightened off by nationalization and threats of government takeovers during the Bhutto years. Islamic penal and fiscal injunctions were incorporated into the legal system. Zia's Islamization program won him the backing of an important fundamentalist party and tempered criticism of his military regime. Zia skillfully coopted and suppressed a divided opposition and outmaneuvered potential challengers within the military. He had hundreds of dissidents arrested and imprisoned. Many were publicly flogged in accord with Islamic law.

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan resulted in a revival of U.S. strategic interests in the region and in an economic and military aid package of $3.2 billion to Pakistan. During the conflict, Zia helped smuggle U.S. supplies to the Soviet-backed Afghan rebels and allowed them to operate training bases in Pakistan. He offered shelter to three million Afghan refugees. But the influx of Afghans exacerbated ethnic and regional conflicts and placed serious new burdens on the economy.

Zia strived to maintain Pakistan's good relations with other Arab countries and China. He assumed a conciliatory stance towards India, proposing normalized relations and a non-aggression pact to end decades of hostility. But in the mid-1980s Indian President Rajiv Gandhi accused Zia of stirring up unrest among Sikhs, a religious sect pushing for independence in the Indian state of Punjab, bordering Pakistan.

In December 1984 Zia abruptly called for a referendum to determine support for his Islamization policies. He declared that public criticism or advocacy of a boycott of the referendum was a punishable offense. The referendum passed overwhelmingly, and Zia considered it a mandate to remain as president for another five years. in March 1985, elections for a national assembly took place, but major political parties were not allowed to participate. Announced as a step towards returning the country to civilian rule, the elections served mainly to legitimize Zia's government. Zia had engineered constitutional changes which increased his presidential powers and permitted him to dissolve the National Assembly at his discretion. Zia also assumed the authority to appoint a prime minister from among the assembly's elected members.

Return of Opposition

In 1986 Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the executed president, returned to Pakistan after two years of self-imposed exile and started to organize the opposition. Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo led efforts to exert more civilian control over the military. In May 1988, Zia fired Junejo and his 33-member cabinet and dissolved the National Assembly. Bhutto declared that her Pakistan People's Party was "ready to go to the people."

On August 17, 1988, Zia was on a secret mission to a desert area in eastern Pakistan, meeting U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel for a demonstration of the M-1 Abrams tank. With an American military attache and 27 Pakistani advisors, Zia and Raphel boarded a C-130 plane to return to the capital. Within minutes after takeoff, it exploded, killing everyone aboard. The crash was suspicious. But Pakistani and American investigators failed to confirm the plane had been bombed. Experts speculated about which of Zia's many enemies might have assassinated him. The Soviet Union, the government of India, Bhutto's People Party and Zia's own military all came under suspicion, but no culprit was ever found. After Zia's death, democracy was restored to Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the leader whom Zia had executed, was elected prime minister in November 1988.

Further Reading on Mohammad Zia ul-Haq

Contemporary Pakistan: Politics, Economy and Society (1980), edited by Manzooruddin Ahmed, provides an overview of the 1977 coup and Zia's government. "Pakistan in 1982: Holding On" by Marvin G. Weinbaum and Stephen P. Cohen in Asian Survey (February 1983) describes the martial law system and Zia's handling of the government opposition and the economy. The Pakistan Army (1984) by Stephen P. Cohen offers a comprehensive analysis of Zia's policies and the problems confronting him. "Pakistan in 1984: Digging In" by William Richter in Asian Survey (February 1985) provides a useful discussion of Zia's policies. "Islamization and Social Policy in Pakistan: The Constitutional Crisis and the Status of Women" by J. Henry Korson and Michelle Mashielle in Asian Survey (June 1985) is helpful in understanding Zia's Islamization policies and their implications. "Death in the Skies" by Michael Serrill in Time (August 29, 1988) discusses Zia's death and possible suspects.